WHEN you think of Australia’s cotton industry, thoughts are very much centred on its heartlands through areas such as the Namoi irrigation district in northern NSW and St George in Queensland.
However, gradual improvements in varieties have meant cotton is now being produced at Jerilderie, within striking distance of the Victorian border and just over 300 kilometres from Melbourne.
Cotton Seed Distributors agronomist for central and southern NSW Bob Ford said there had been an explosion in the amount of plantings in cotton’s southern bastion.
“In 2009-10 there were 3500 hectares planted in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee growing areas, that figure has grown to 22,000ha this season.”
He said there were a number of contributing factors as to why farmers were turning to cotton in increasing numbers, but said varietal advances were crucial.
“The main variety grown through that area now, Sicot 71 BRF, could be a one in 20 year variety.“
He said its package of disease and insect management traits allowed growers to concentrate on the other agronomic management necessary to successfully grow cotton in southern areas.
“It is a bit harder to grow a crop in the south, as the season is certainly shorter and there are less of the heat units required to grow the crop, but with good management it can be done.
“Target yields are lower than in the northern zones, but at current pricing, it is still an attractive option.”
He said growers in the south were targeting around nine bales a hectare.
“Transgenic varieties, and advances such as Bollgard, along with new varieties from CSIRO have made it possible for cotton to come this far south,” he said.
Mr Ford said the record pricing for the fibre crop, coupled with a stagnant market for traditional summer crops through southern NSW, such as rice and corn, meant growers were prepared to experiment with cotton.
“There have been consistent results over the past five years in terms of both yields and quality, which has led to the increase in acreage.”
He said the crop’s water use efficiency was also good, giving irrigators good value for money.
One Riverina family growing the crops are the Roratos, Sergio and Silvia and children Glen, Allen and Sandra.
The family has previously focused on growing tomatos, but this year they have branched out into producing cotton at Jerilderie and Narrandera.
Brett Hay an agronomist in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area said the Rorato family saw cotton as another potential summer crop that can use in rotation with tomatoes.
He said this initial season it was a matter of simply observing how it goes.
It will not only be the the Rorato family watching on with interest, but also other farmers in their area, who may decide to also branch into cotton production.
One key facet of the production will be ensuring that quality is maintained through the extremes of weather that occur in the Riverina, and the overall lower temperature range during the crucial fibre development stage.
“So far, the crop looks good standing at around 18 nodes and 75cm, with a good fruit load,” Mr Hay said.
“The rows have closed in and cut-out will occur next week. It looks promising, but we will see what happens once we have the cotton in modules and off to the gin.”
Mr Ford said he did not expect the crop to progress too much further south, saying that its need for a longer growing season than other summer crops meant it would struggle in the Murray irrigation zone and further south.
However, in the Murrumbidgee, he said cotton could get big, especially with that region’s relatively stable water allocations.
“The Murrumbidgee has the most reliable allocations in the state, you could see more cotton here than in the Gwydir River area.”
“If this season goes well, there could be 35,000ha of cotton in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee areas next year.
“Already we have 60 growers in the area, and a lot of them are new.”
“It’s certainly not going to replace rice in the Murrumbidgee, but it will give the growers there the opportunity to have a broadleaf crop like cotton in the rotation.
"There will be the opportunity to make decisions based on the market at the time.”